As sure as night follows day, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side follow a promising result with a shocking one. The 1-0 loss to West Brom on Sunday handed their bitter City rivals the title without so much as a landed glove.
Last week United beat the side at the top of the league away from home, this Sunday they lost at home to the team in 20th place. Romelu Lukaku apparently overcame a sickness bug to gain a place in the starting line-up, but after such a dour display he was not the only one with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
The incentive was clear from the outset – deliver a handsome win and delay the party for their noisy neighbours for another game week. A positive result for United would have only delayed the inevitable, but the manner in which they whimpered to defeat to the league’s worst team made for a head-banging afternoon for the United faithful.
If you’re being kind, United’s performance was flat and uninspiring. If not, it was an unspeakable tragicomedy stuffed with arrogant actors. Paul Pogba, in particular, peacocked through the afternoon, misplacing passes with alarming regularity and attempting unlikely through-balls and angled cross-field balls.
Thierry Henry hoped that Pogba’s man of the match display at the Etihad Stadium last week represented a pivotal moment in his Old Trafford career. Pogba’s miserly display served up a keen reminder not only of his inconsistency, but it was also a harsh blow to the fence-sitting punditry career of his compatriot, Henry. Both Frenchmen are under fire, although the irony remains that Pogba is in need of simplifying his game, Henry quite the opposite.
As Pogba trudged off the pitch after being substituted on 58 minutes, the marriage between player and manager continues to head towards a summer of de facto separation.
Mourinho is still the man to take them forward, but the squad is in desperate need of a shake-up to compete with their city rivals. Indeed, United’s second-half substitutions, bringing on the dynamic trio of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, spoke volumes about the side’s sluggish approach play and desperate need for impetus in breaking down a resolute Albion rearguard.
Mourinho said his players were “masters in complication”, ever-ready to trade his preferred brand of pragmatic football for flicks and tricks. The Portuguese bemoaned a lack of fluidity, saying his side deserved to be punished. Like his underwhelming team, his comments seemed to misfire – dourly understating the pity of it all.
Alas, Pep Guardiola’s freakish band of champions make most teams look like floundering amateurs in comparison. And there should be no shame in coming second place to City’s well-oiled outfit. Amidst the pale anguish served up at Old Trafford, it’s important to remember this season actually represents progress – from sixth place to second.
The thing that rankles most for a neutral though, let alone for the United fan base, is the teeth-clenchingly gutless and apathetic manner in which they succumbed to their inevitable fate.